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Wonderful Waiata: 8 Memorable te reo Māori Songs

From TE KAAHU to Stan Walker to Alien Weaponry

Below, check out a selection of top tracks sung in the Māori mother tongue. For all of our comprehensive NZ Music Month coverage, head to the Rolling Stone New Zealand homepage.

TE KAAHU – “Rangirara”

When Em-Haley Walker wished to get more in touch with her Māori identity in her art, she briefly stepped away from her stylish alt-pop project Theia to become TE KAAHU at the turn of the decade. The rewards were immense: TE KAAHU’s 2022 album, Te Kaahu O Rangi, was a beautiful collection of waiata that took listeners on a journey of respect and love for Walker’s ancestors.

Walker later performed three album cuts live for Rolling Stone AU/NZ’s ‘In My Room’ sessions, including the swaying country gem “Rangirara”, and her full session brought to the fore all the vulnerability and tenderness of her TE KAAHU project. Walker may now have returned to being Theia in music, but the spiritual impact of her TE KAAHU album will carry on, even if she decides to never release under the moniker again. 

Lost Tribe Aotearoa (ft. Rei) – “Āio”

Featured in Rolling Stone AU/NZ’s ‘Up-And-Coming Aotearoa Artists’ series in 2023, Lost Tribe Aotearoa are a mighty eight-piece family band based out of Whaingaroa/Raglan. Their sound, which is blessed with good vibrations, blends infectious reggae rock with their native roots, and the best example of this came last year on “Āio”, their first te reo Māori release. 

A soulful reimagining of their previous single “Irie”, which was a top ten hit on the New Zealand Charts in 2018, “Āio” was a pivotal moment for the tight-knit ensemble as they infused their native language into their music with rewarding results. “This is our first waiata Māori, but is definitely not the last,” they said last year. “We feel this song is really going to push us to write more songs in te reo and also help our own journeys into learning our language at a deeper level.”

Dillastrate (ft. Tiki Taane) – “Ko Tātou Te Ahi”

Fierce drum and bass live from a marae? It must be Ōtautahi’s electrifying duo Dillastrate. Recorded live inside the wharenui at Ngā Hau E Whā National Marae in Christchurch, “Ko Tātou Te Ahi” captured Henare ‘H’ Kaa and Tim Driver at their best, the waiata featuring rapping in both Māori and English atop powerful bass lines and propulsive drums. It also helped that the legend himself, Tiki Taane, joined on production, having previously collaborated with Dillastrate on another 2023 single, “Way to Flow”. 

Dillastrate’s waiata was also infused with a moving sense of place;  released as part of 2023’s Waiata Anthems Week compilation, “Ko Tātou Te Ahi” celebrated Christchurch’s people for their “resilience, mana and ability to overcome adversity and rise above it.”

Lorde – “Te Ao Mārama”

Lorde was unfairly maligned for her thoughtful 2021 album, Solar Power, but it was the pop superstar’s first album to get its own te reo Māori spin-off release. “In making an album about where I’m from, it was important to me to be able to say: this makes us who we are down here,” Lorde said about the surprise digital EP Te Ao Mārama upon its release.

Five Solar Power songs were re-recorded for the project, which was released appropriately during Te Wiki o Te Reo, a week of celebration of the Māori language. The title track was a standout on the initial English language version and it was no different on “Te Ao Mārama”, Lorde’s well-meaning singing floating nicely over the now-iconic stripped back acoustic guitar line. (It should be noted that while Lorde does not speak te reo Māori, she worked closely with three translators to recreate each album track’s lyrics.)

Stan Walker – “Matemateāone”

Hollywood has finally beckoned for Stan Walker. His single, “I AM”, is an original song for Ava DuVernay’s upcoming film, Origin, which came about after the Oscar-nominated filmmaker slid into Walker’s DMs after hearing the Aotearoa artist’s stunning vocals on his rendition of Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam”.

While the sincere “I AM” represents reclamation of one’s identity to Walker, he’s been proudly celebrating his Māori identity throughout his career. His 2021 single, “Matemateāone” was a touching bilingual ballad that paid tribute to his own marriage to his partner, Lou Tyson. The waiata’s release came just before Walker dropped Te Arohanui, his first album sung in te reo Māori. 

Alien Weaponry – “Kai Tangata”

Waipu warriors Alien Weaponry have released some of the most visceral te reo Māori songs in recent years, chief among them 2018’s heaving “Kai Tangata”. Once named “the hottest young metal band in the world” by Metal Hammer, the trio of Henry Te Reiwhati de Jong, Lewis Raharuhi de Jong and Tūranga Morgan-Edmonds have been making waves in metal music since their mid-teens on a global scale. 

Crowds from New Zealand to Slovenia, Germany to even the US couldn’t get enough of their powerful sound, and in the past five years “Kai Tangata” has amassed over 16 million views on YouTube alone, with many millions more on streaming services. There’s just something about metal and te reo Māori that works so well together. 

Six60 – “Pepeha”

In 2022, Six60 were drawn into a needless row with Australian Sky News host Rowan Dean over their use of te reo Māori on their tour posters. “There’s not a word of English anywhere in there”, the loudmouth host blasted, but he had picked the wrong band to take on. “Six60 is all about bringing people together,  no matter the language,” the Dunedin icons declared, humbling Dean by offering him free tickets to their tour so that he could “experience some positivity.”

From haunting singles to rousing hakas at the State of Origin, Six60 always make sure to celebrate their band’s Māori heritage wherever they go. Released one year before their row with Dean, “Pepeha” was Six60’s second song to be recorded in te reo Māori, released to coincide with Te Wiki o te reo Māori. Band members Marlon Gerbes and Matiu Walters wrote it alongside several te reo Māori experts, with the use of traditional Māori instruments, taonga pūoro, throughout the song adding a beautiful touch. As with most Six60 releases, it captivated Aotearoa listeners, reaching #2 on the New Zealand Chart and taking out the Rolling Stone Aotearoa Award for Best Single.

AJA – “Te Reo ki Whakarongotai”

AJA’s sincere and moving 2023 waiata paid tribute to the Aotearoa singer-songwriter’s ancestral home in Waikanae on the Kāpiti Coast. It was a truly whānau effort: AJA’s Uncle Kahu Ropata penned the waiata, while her older sister, Trey Ropata, composed the initial tune before AJA, Kahu and Natasha Ropata developed it further.

AJA’s waiata encouraged listeners to immerse themselves in the distinct language of Ātiawa ki Whakarongotai, the marae and iwi to which the artist belongs. “This song is a product of the vast wisdom inherited from generations before,” as she explained at the time. Nominated for the APRA Maioha Silver Scroll Award for a previous waiata (“Te Iho”), meaningful songs like “Te Reo ki Whakarongotai” should ensure that AJA is a future nominee for years to come.


This article features in the March 2024 issue of Rolling Stone AU/NZ. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.

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